Venice was as beautiful and compelling as I ever remember it. This year it showed more moodiness, often covering itself in alluring mists. Each year we visit on the cusp of the two seasons. If a week is a long time in politics, then in Venice it can be the defining moment between Summer and Autumn. This moodiness provided sights just as memorable as when the city glitters in the sun. My early morning walks meant that I caught the mist each day before the sun burned it off. In St Marks Square there was just me and two sweepers at 7.15am. They were supplied with old fashioned brooms. Half a football pitch to clean with just that broom, a job for the patient and persistent. Autumn is arriving and, as in so many places, the world’s weather shows increasing signs of derangement. The Piazza was flooded daily, this, earlier in the year than usual but not serious. It was sufficient however to close the businesses in the square to protect them for a few hours from the watery inundations and open again quickly to attract the inundations of tourists.
We walked and explored more even than in earlier visits. We are keen to use the Traghetti. These gondoliers plied their trade long before there were bridges. Even now there are now only four bridges across the Grand Canal. In the long bridgeless sections the locals use the Traghetti to cross, almost free. The tradition is that you stand up for the crossing, irrespective of the rocking motion. But even here traditions change and whereas in former years I have seen angry gondoliers drag confused tourists to their feet, this year, the mode was to sit, locals and all.
Another break with tradition was that on one occasion the gondolier was a woman! I think there are only two or three in the city. I suspect the women are kept to the foot ferry business. To be taken through the backwaters on a romantic journey with your partner by a female rather than the traditional false-charm male seems an unlikely commercial proposition on several levels. Another tradition that was at least modified was the pigeon population. Somehow it has been considerably slimmed. I did wonder whether they were following the Cole Porter lyric; ‘We opened in Venice, then onto Verona.’ How many pigeons presently infest Verona I wonder? Of course, there is the standard attempt to reduce comfortable perching spots for them. In addition to the obvious ledges, I noticed that some statues sprout needles, one in particular, a young woman looking heavenward made me think she had been martyred by a particularity aggressive acupuncturist: Santa Lucia of the Needles.
In the ancient world the Cretans held poll position for avarice. Their reputation for parting people from their money in a dishonest way was unsurpassed. In the medieval world, the Venetians eagerly took over that reputation, adding to it as they built their wealthy power base and planted their coastal empire about the Mediterranean. They were especially notorious for having first offered to come to the rescue of the ailing Byzantine Empire…for money of course….and then proceeding to loot Constantinople in a thorough sort of way and drag back amazing treasures to enhance the beauty and prestige of Venice.
The famous four bronze Horses of St Mark’s formed part of this booty. These in turn were stolen from the Republic by Napoleon and, along with almost all the furniture from the Doge’s palace, removed to Paris. Eventually the four horses were repatriated to the now degraded city and sit safely inside St Marks. They belong there, well; they have for almost a 1000 years, so I assume the Istanbul authorities see it as a done deal: though you never know. As to the furniture issue, the Doge’s palace remains almost entirely bare. That palace once constituted the largest suite of meeting rooms in the world. They now echo as you wander them wondering why they needed quite so very many rooms in which to meet. Those Venetians must have been all meetinged out. I assume Paris remains is rather well furnished.
Looking out from the site of those bronze horses above the main doors of St Mark’s; Napoleon remarked that he was gazing at the most beautiful drawing room in Europe. It may well be true, standing there you could not deny it, but now in Venice, that drawing room has been defaced by 60 foot high advertising hoardings; as the Venetians exploit their attractions to earn a bit more money. Round the corner, the Bridge of Sighs draws hoards from around the world. One 30 foot section is all that can been seen. The rest, plus the entire walls leading to it, from waterline to roofline constitutes a glossy overpowering advertising campaign. The visitors are baffled and disappointed. I wonder how many determine that whatever it is that GEOX sell, they will not be buying any of it.
Of course these hoardings conceal repairs in progress. At one stage, when working on the palazzos on the Grand Canal, the unsightly scaffolding was cleverly covered by a fine netting that had a life size bronzed photograph of that very façade imprinted on it. It was a superb solution to preserve the general look of the route. Now, that idea has been abandoned and GEOX is spending vast sums wallpapering acres of prestige worksites with bright blue fashion hoardings. Jarring and ugly, they presumably turn a desirably ugly penny or so for someone in Venice.
Now a’ days, Venetians don’t go ravaging about the high seas doing deals and seizing lands….no, on the contrary, they stay home; but do sack the wallet of each and every visitor to what was once a Republic and is now Heritage Italy, a Decaying Cultural Disneyland.
Seemingly there are now fewer than 60,000 Italian residents in the city. That is difficult to accept when you wander off the tourist track. There are large areas of local government tenancy, let alone the thousands and thousands of ancient apartments. But we have known for years that the locals are a dwindling minority in a city that is flooded out with humanity, all wanting photos of themselves by that famous little bridge.
Many cities have a distinctly ambivalent relationship with its visitors. There are real tensions and difficulties in maintaining a constantly degrading infrastructure for so few residents who both need the tourist dollar and detest the human detritus that turns up by the million to spend the million. Three of those millions arrive at the airport each year. Then there are the cruise liners and those who train it. How much must it cost to pipe in from the Dolomites all the water all these people use and consume?
But the real enemy is seemingly the day tripper. Top on the hit list is the cruise day tripper. These moving cities arrive early in the mornings. They dwarf the buildings, blotting out entire islands as they are dragged within yards of St Mark’s. Many thousands are disgorged for the main part of the day and the tempo of the city is greatly affected by this invasion. The Venice Mayor is seriously considering how to limit the number of day trippers by imposing an entry tax onto anyone without proof of a hotel reservation. Despite this impending action there are advanced plans to dredge the channel and allow access for larger passenger liners! The dredging will also permit larger industrial shipping to use the port. But this act further endangers the delicate city by increasing the possibility of regular serious flooding.
But: that proposed tax already exists for those who use the water transport, which almost everyone does. Whereas the locals pay 1 Euro 20 cents per trip, the visitor is fleeced for 6 Euros 50 cents! Over £6 to possibly go four stops on the Vaparetto! You can get a three day ticket for a ‘mere’ 31 Euros. Had Jane and I decided to go for broke, then the five days boat use would have amounted to £110. That acts like a tax and it especially stings when there is this enormous difference between the esteemed visitor and the resident who is in every conceivable way subsidised by the incomers.
This year there were far fewer visitors and very short queues. The recession is taking a toll. Luxury hotels have reduced their rates, though someone we know in Venice had recently arranged a one night stay in the Danieli for a customer. He was amazed that the customer was prepared to pay 550 Euros for a single room for one night and scandalised that this did not include breakfast. Well, how could it? Clearly a coffee and a croissant that was not being specifically charged for would sink the Danieli and its ilk.
We were uniquely able to walk straight into the lift to get to the top of the San Marco bell tower, not even a vestigial queue, and there we spent over an hour watching the sun go down, the light change to silver and the shadows become dark blue. There were very few of us up there, the ships had been refilled with their passengers leaving the city to the real travellers, well, the less reviled ones!
We first arrived late in the evening, dumped our bags and then tried to find somewhere for a drink. Venice is not a ‘late’ city. They are shutting themselves into their shuttered apartimenti at the hour when the residents of Madrid are just putting on the style in order to go out for a drink before they eat. We were turned away from several places. Then on the stroke of 11pm, a restaurant agreed we could be served outside in isolation. I wanted the bar inside, but that was not on offer. Two glasses of Prosecco and water amounted to £20.
The insult was that four Italian men arrived after we were served and were welcomed inside. You see, at the inside bar the drinks are always very much cheaper, perhaps one quarter of the outside-sit-down ransom. The Venetian’s had given early notice to us that our Euros were only on loan to us. And frankly, although we know many tricks of the trade, that is largely how the visit proceeded. Add a cover charge, service charge, taxes and water to a food bill and you may have almost doubled it. The cover charge was often six Euros. But of course it is best to join this battle with some relish rather than it becoming a dominating feature. We enjoyed our old haunts, watering holes and restaurants and we explored in some detail areas of the city new to us. At our favourite bar, we were greeted as old friends, introduced to new staff and treated to many free drinks and constant snacks. Here we encountered the warmth we so value. Offers made that for our next visit a private view round La Fenice will be arranged for us.
One highlight was our first visit to the Ghetto. This is the city where the word, the concept was invented. Italian for ‘a forge’, two adjacent forges sat on a tiny island within the north of the city. Due to the danger of fire, the forges were removed to the much more distant island of Murano, where the glass industry subsequently flourished. This small space was then dedicated to the Jews who were given a very qualified welcome back to the city in medieval times.
The island has three bridges as the only access and although the Jews could leave the Ghetto during daylight hours, they had to be back on the island during dark. Drawbridges were raised and the exits guarded by Christian soldiers….the Jews had the dubious privilege imposed upon them of paying for these gaolers.
They were permitted to ply only three trades two of which were Bankers, (for Christians were not allowed to lend money, but had a constant need of it), and Doctors. These latter were permitted accompanied egress at night when the Christians needed attention. If there might be an idea that you are merely visiting an historical site; banish it. The past and present collide. Issues around persecution and schism are very much alive here.
We took the official tour, the only way to visit the synagogues for a non-religious purpose. The guide of our 20 or so party was a stylish forty-something woman with a leonine mane of wavy hair. We got off to a difficult start. Climbing flights of stairs we were confronted by a locked door and the key was not doing its job. After quite some effort and no success, I quietly voiced the question: anyone know a prayer for locked doors….thin smiles from the men around me with their skull caps. After a spell in the museum we were recalled.
The door was open and we were ushered, men all with head coverings, into the synagogue. Our guide gave a sensible amount of information. So crowded were the Jews that they had built tenements up to eight stories high. As the Synagogues have to have a roof looking onto heaven, they were built on top of houses. The interior walls were painted to look like marble as the Roman church had forbidden the Jews to possess marble, too good for them seemingly. There had been several thousand living cheek by jowl and very much on top of one another. Some floors have a headroom of less then six feet.
In modern times the Jews were allowed to live wherever they wished but, the centre of Jewish life remains firmly in the Ghetto where The Community comes together on a regular basis. Early in the tour it was explained that before the Second World War the number in the city had dwindled to about 700. There were then three round-ups by the Fascists and Nazis, the last dragging ill Jews out of the hospital. Over 200 died in concentration camps, the rest became part of the Diaspora. Now there are about 300 in the city.
It was tentatively suggested that there might have been some who were saved by local Venetians. This was scoffed at, “No Madame! That was not likely the case. Venetians were in league with the Fascists.” At this point tension was suddenly present and by the end of the tour, the air crackled with it. There was one idiotic Gentile female whose third asinine remark questioned one story that had been mentioned as being in the Torah. “Well, it is not in my Old Testament…Aaron, I do believe, he is in the OT, but that guy you mentioned; never heard of him.” The guide was clearly angry, but did not reply. The screw of tension was again turned.
There was a pattern to this questioning. The guide would give information, ask whether there were any questions, extended silence, then one eventual question followed by a flood. But not the flood one might expect. It was a flood of salt water. Only the women spoke and almost all the questions were barbed. The Venice Community is strictly Orthodox. There is no Reform Community evident and all of the strictest rules are adhered to when joining community occasions.
“Are the women still segregated in this Synagogue?” “Can the women be seen or are the curtains drawn?” “Surely it must get very hot for the women up there?” “Does the Rabbi go to the Torah or is it brought to him?” “Where and how are the children educated?” “Why do you not have your own school?” “If you have no doctor here now, who acts as the Mohel?” “You said this building is used every week for Shabbat, look, this lamp in the sanctuary has been allowed to go out!” “Why are there name plates on these seats?” “Why cannot the seats be passed down the generations within the family?” Subtle meanings here that are only really clear to the initiated.
The men looked on grimly, or stared at their feet. Those of us who were not of The Community were raising eyebrows and catching one another’s eyes. By this time the tension was palpable. Who would ask what, next?
All this may look on the page like a mere list of questions, but they were actually passive/aggressive challenges, some of which were up-front, outright aggressive. The body language added much. The divisions in the community were laid bare and our guide was being used as a punch-bag representative of the ultra orthodox by, I assume, reform Jews, or by some who felt that Venice was not nearly ultra orthodox enough.
Going through this ritual four times a day must become an endurance test. Our guide was a no nonsense feisty sort, restrained somewhat by the fact that these people insulting her were paying for the privilege. Her smile was tight as a thong, her remarks largely uttered through gritted teeth. I suspected she was envisioning piano wire. It was riveting theatre in a way and we learned a great deal; not all of it part of the official menu.
The final of the three Synagogues we entered was more elaborate with beautiful carvings. It had been used to film part of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with Al Pacino. Our not so tame dolt patsy Gentile asked….’The Merchants of Venice?’ and pulled a puzzled expression. ‘Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice’ she was told. She remained puzzled. I assume there is no such merchant in her version of the Old Testament.
Interestingly for the creation of this synagogue Venice had in this instance felt sufficiently sure of herself as to defy the pope’s edict. It sold permission to the Jews to use real marble. They however had to employ Christian architects who imposed a modified version of the standard sacred Solomonic architecture, Christianising it to an extent. The ‘pulpit’ was raised higher than the place in which the Torah is stored, very much a solecism, an anomaly, a departure from the orthodox.
The things people do to one another never cease to amaze. No wonder that on occasion the locks refuse to allow the doors to open. On occasion wisdom should prevail and the door be left locked.
Early in our visit we decided to ‘do’ the Biennale. This feast of contemporary art centres on two sites and has an official fringe that is dotted around the city and utilises lots of buildings the public cannot normally access. These scattered sites are free; the ticket allows you to enter the gardens where the National Pavilions exist as permanent buildings and to the Arsenale, normally the preserve of the Navy. These Arsenale buildings provide dramatic settings for the art and are worth a visit in their own right. As the Biennale has been going for over 100 years, the National Pavilions were initially built to impress by the old imperial states in the grand style. The more established sit in an avenue running up a low hill. Germany rubs shoulders with Russia and Japan stares across at the French. At the end of the avenue atop a flight of steps sits the British building, again, imperial in essence. The lesser states have scattered buildings in a hinterland behind the top-table players. The USA nevertheless has built something that looks like an annex to The White House.
We had enormous fun at the event. Most of the art we could not take seriously. The recent arrangement for most countries is that instead of a group of artists, one is commissioned to represent a country. This way provides more miss than hit than if the eggs are not all presented by one basket. The theme this year is ‘Creating Worlds’. Almost anything can fit into this very generalised idea. Severe political agitprop rubs shoulders with, for example, a series of small empty specially constructed rooms that are highly coloured each in a single colour. Without doors you see into one vibrant room from its predecessor. We enjoyed this display a lot.
For sure most of the wit and pleasure was contained in the Arsenale, vast high rooms were used with exciting displays of light and colour and darkness enhanced some concepts, providing mystery, some of the murk distinctly welcome. Many works suited the rough walls and great high beams. In contrast, the buildings at the gardens feel cramped.
In one ancient building on the Grand Canal, the bare brick ground floor had been rented to display the achievements of New Zealand. I have no idea how ironic the contribution might have been, but the artist had produced about 200 or so drawings and watercolours of various sizes and they were crowded on the walls and floor, unframed. Every single one was of one subject, himself dressed in pants or swimmers. I then realised The Artist was present amongst us, wearing a dressing gown he was playing with a vacuum cleaner and sitting on a scruffy couch. On leaving the beautiful old building we saw that right along the floor-line around all the walls was a little trail of orange dust. We were almost watching the bricks decompose in front of us, a sad sight.
Cut it any which way, there was an awful lot of rubbish; poorly executed, tired and casual work. A deal was deliberately alienating, some deliberately offensive and much was accompanied by the usual arts-blah about engagement, fresh vision, new ways of looking at the world, etc. Fine arts are almost entirely absent, I did not notice any traditional sculpture at all and paint was mostly used within mixed media.
We remain in the era of the installation and conceptual art. Video installations were ubiquitous. One country then as representative…Canada, its contribution was a darkened room. Remember the theme, Creating Worlds. Three screens showed simultaneous short loops of respectively, two skaters using an outdoor city ice-rink, enjoying themselves, nice for them. Two pigeons on a cold day warming themselves by sitting on a hot air vent in the pavement: finally a group of eight people having an argument in the street, very staged and creaking like only amateur dramatics can.
The USA building, devoted to Bruce Nauman, consists of roughly modelled deliberately ugly and bald heads; some lined one on top of another, some hung over a pool and spouting water from ‘extra’ holes.
The Brazilian exhibit was genuinely life enhancing, complex canvases, abstract, colour zinging off the wall, burning brightly into the eye. Egypt worked in large scale using tough raffia to create giant tableaux of figures embracing, very daring in the Islamic context, beautiful and imaginative, with an edge and somehow combining the ancient with the new conjuring a world, at last.
We trekked up the imperial avenue, dismissing most of what we saw. Japan, a female artist had produced a handful of enormous framed works, the same hyper realistic woman, upper half naked and her breasts in various exaggerated states of balloon like firmness, or ancient and dried up and deflated, but still outsize.
Finland and Norway combined had come up with a swimming pool sporting a face-down floating dummy, very droll. Inside that exhibit, there was 1960s furniture and a toilet in the woods, complete with trees and autumn leaves. The walls were hung with explicit Tom of Finland homo-erotic works, a panel of nine sets of modern underpants with the name of the owner under each pair. Also a very large photograph of some naked ‘sleeping’ tumescent men. Congratulations to that guy on the left!
I did wonder at what point the artist became curator, having created none of the exhibits, merely assembling them, something we all do from time to time when making a home and exactly what interior designers do. This felt like an example of the mistletoe living off the apple tree, tawdry as well as uncreative.
It is tempting to imagine that whatever is present actually represents a country in not just its arts and its culture, but its current general state. I do hope not. Steve McQueen represented the UK, we had just about saved him for last and by now our expectations were subterranean.
There was a polite notice at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Brit Pavilion. Due to technical problems, the installation was not open, it was hoped to solve the problems later in the day. Yes, yet another video installation and, rather as with the recalcitrant lock in the Synagogue, this may well have been a supernatural attempt to protect our feelings. I therefore have no shame to report about the British entry; except than to suggest that, as with so much in the UK, it did not work and may therefore be a silently eloquent comment on our particular Created World.
As to music, well, as seems to be their habit; La Fenice Opera house hears I am turning up and promptly the house goes dark. Of course there is Vivaldi, a concert of his work just about every night. Talented street buskers stick to the Red Priest’s music. We wandered the Frari, a stupendously large gothic brick-built church containing the heart of Canova in a tomb large enough for a family of six to live comfortably, Monteverdi’s remains lie under a modest stone set in the floor. We saw instruments lying about that would support a full orchestra. What was happening? At the entry office of the church, all we could establish was that there would be a free concert at four pm that day. We had to be across the city to meet someone at 1.30. I asked at the tourist office what was on and was told it was an organ recital. “No”, I explained, “There is a full orchestra; it is clearly not going to be an organ recital.” Eyes are rolled then narrowed at me, the bottom lip is pouted and she fires a question at her colleague, disappears momentarily and then provides me with a leaflet. “The concert is in there.” She smiles professionally and turns to the next penitent.
Outside I open it up to discover she has given me a programme of….Organ Recitals in the Frari. Still a mystery, we go back to the church again after the meet-up. No seats left but we plant ourselves on the pediment of a broad pillar. It turns out that the programme is mainly contemporary music.
Non other than the Fenice Orchestra opened with the magical Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’. This was followed by some Corelli arranged for full orchestra, very Stokowski. Then a couple of pieces by the conductor, can’t recall his name and to follow, an extended piece for tenor and orchestra. Some kind of long-night-of-the-soul I suspect. The tenor sounded pained, as though his entrails were being pulled through his bum. Meanwhile two competing trombones were doing their best to blot out his caterwauling. We left at this point. It had been good to hear the space filled with sound and some of the music was captivating, but without seats, we felt that enough had been as good as a feast.
Leaving Venice at what is still high season; we had wondered whether it might be good to visit some January or other and take advantage of the low season hotel prices. Going to our own B sans B I overheard an Italian explaining to her friends that in January Venice has colder temperatures than London. I have decided, winter is out High Season is, reluctantly, in.